New Pastor Bingo

When you first become a pastor, you can’t help but keep track of all the firsts you’ve had, and the firsts you’ve yet to have. There are, of course, many things that are missing from this card, but we can jump off those bridges when we come to them. For now, I present to you, New Pastor Bingo!

(Without revealing too much about myself… suffice it to say that, on this card, I have Bingo multiple ways.)

bingo card 2What about you? Do you have bingo? What would you include on my next card?

 

Despair to Delight: The Natural Evolution of a Spiritual Retreat

The last of my journal entries I’ll share about my time at the monastery. I hope you enjoy!

*****

Saturday, February 9th, 2013, 7:00am

Could you imagine living the monastic life? Silence from 7:45pm to 8am.  Sleeping from 8pm to 3am. Four worship services, including a Eucharist Mass, before 9am. And we (absolutely and without exception including myself) can’t even manage to get to the 11am service on time!

The monks have a dress code, though I’ve yet to totally figure it out. One robe for Mass; another for the other services, sometimes with a white cloak, other times without it. Those who are still in the novitiate don’t get a black umm, …apron(?) to put over their robe. Father Victor, who as far as I can tell is not a monk but a bishop who has retired to the monastery, does not wear the robes but wears simple gray or khaki tunics and pants.

Footwear appears unregulated. The Abbot wears spiderwebby sneaker-sandals over socks, many wear sneakers, some clogs, others brown leather or suede sandals over black or white socks.  Rings on the right hand can be spotted, which surprised me. Most heads shine with a bald skull or at least a patch. Father Christian wears a flat black hat, maybe about 8 inches in diameter, that sits on the crown of his skull. It’s very endearing.

Most of the monks walk around at a very solemn, slow pace– as a monk ought, it seems. Father Christian, though, at 98, speeds around on his walker like a racehorse. I have only seen him walk slowly when trying to keep his walker’s wheels from making too much noise when he sneaks (“sneaks”) into prayer five minutes late.

During Eucharist Mass this morning he sat in his seat after it ended and said, over and over, “Thank You. Thank You. Thank You. Thank You.”

This is the same Catholic priest of a man who, last time I was here, prayed for female clergy, and this time for female soldiers and for immigrants.  He has two PhDs and a flat, sort of angry-looking face, but when he smiles you can hear angels.

*****

Sunday, February 10th, 2013, 11:45am

I’ll tell you this for free– you’ve not seen much of anything until you’ve seen a white-bearded monk in a red-blue flannel, jeans, sneakers, and a blue ball cap riding a bicycle down a gravel lane. It’s like looking a God on Her day off.

*****

Sunday, February 10th, 2013, 4:04 am

Picture this: There I trudged, puddling through the rushing rain, laden with Bible, journal, and Barbara Brown Taylor, a flashlight in one hand, umbrella stem planted in the other, instantly rubbing blisters on naked feet within my sneakers because the socks I’d washed and put outside to dry had only gotten wetter through the rainy night, lamenting and frankly worrying about the fact that I’d forgotten to brush my hair…. and all this was going on at 3:12 am.

And then, because ours is a God who loves to put things like unkempt hair in perspective and who also loves to laugh, just as I drew near to the steps of the church, out of the bushes ambled a large, ugly possum. Mercifully, and by some miracle, I was somehow kept from swearing aloud– this being a monastery, after all, and also still well within the hours of the Great Silence.

But I suspect there rose a great laughter Up There at the spectacle I was. And I had to laugh, too. Because what else is there to do, really?

*****

Sunday, February 10th, 2013, 8:20 pm

On the first day of our retreat we (the retreatants) all, independently of one another, gave ourselves over heartily to despair. We gazed upon our sin and greed, so frankly juxtaposed by the holiness and modesty of the monks, and we were duly ashamed. So we wallowed. There was frowning and deep penitential prayer, and of course weeping– although I suspect the weeping was more from the shame of not feeling more penitent than from the penitence itself. Isn’t that just always the way?

Some of us withdrew to secret places in the gardens, hidden by bricked-up hollow trees or separated by creaking footbridges. Others laid flat on the banks of alligator-laden rivers and ponds, as though welcoming a toothy attack as part of their penance.

When we all showed up the next morning at 3am bitten only by the cold night air, a sense of giddiness filled us all.  The night of weeping was over, and here fast approaching was the morn of song! We were reborn, resurrected, no longer slaves to our self-imposed punishments. We were free.

The scene in the gardens all that day was of frolicking, gamboling. We basked in the warming sun, daring the alligators to touch us in our new skin. We rolled in the grass, collected flowers and set them to sail on the still waters, and skimmed our hands along the tall grasses as we wandered through wide meadows. The prayers of the monks shot through us with fresh meaning, the Psalms flashed like jewels from our lips. We smiled at one another across the church and winked at the monks as they strolled past us.

We walked in the pitch darkness without our flashlights, happy and unafraid under the shelter of the stars. We drank orange tea and felt mystical and wise. At once we were newborn babies soaking up as much love and knowledge as we could, and also old women, dispensing and receiving wisdom from the ancient throats of the trees.

Tomorrow we will head out into the wilderness again, leaving this Eden guarded from us by the flaming swords of space and time. We will do all we can to carry this place with us, to be this place for those we love and those we meet. But it will not be the same. We will not be the same.

The Abbey, however, will remain the same. It is one of the most constant things in the world. After we are gone, the monks will have their services without us. After we are gone, new guests will fill our beds and our stalls in the church. And the monks will watch, amused, as these too suffer and do penance and are freed. I hope it gives them joy, the monks, to watch the endless parade of pilgrims longing and receiving in their presence. I know if it were me, I would be irritated by it. But they are better, they are kinder, for they wink back at me and they smile.

Six Months Down, Or: How Long Until Retirement?

Dear friends, can you believe it? Today marks six full months of ministry for me. While I am tempted to make a humorous list of the more bizarre things that have happened to me or bigger mistakes I’ve made, I thought instead six months deserved a bit more.  So I went back to the drawing board, or the writing journal, as it were, and I hope you will indulge me a reflective post.  I’ll offer you something humorous later in the week, I promise!

***

There are a great number of things about ministry for which I was very well-prepared: preaching, liturgy, hospital visitations, nursing homes, funerals, Bible studies, Sunday school, and charge conferences.  Seminary, as well as field and personal experiences, taught me just about everything I’ve needed to know so far about the typical weekly and occasional events of the Church and her life.  I know what Point A and Point B are, and I know how to get from one to the other and back.

What I was not prepared for was everything in between.

Source: United Methodist Memes

Source: United Methodist Memes

I was not prepared, for example, for the hum and drum of working life.

I was not prepared for the particular, abiding fear that comes with a job like ministry where you are constantly discerning and articulating your ever-changing “call,” and trying to either build a job description around that or muscle it into fitting the job description your ministry setting provides and/or needs.

I was not prepared for the constant self-evaluation and doubting that comes with a job in which personal relationships are 98% of what you do.  Though I am not the type to have social anxiety, I find myself panicking over every small interaction:

Source: United Methodist Memes

Source: United Methodist Memes

“Did I say ‘no’ with too much negative emphasis when they offered me wine at that Sunday School Christmas party?”

“Was I insensitive when that mother was telling me about her daughter’s disease and related bowel issues?”

“Did I laugh out loud when that man in Trader Joe’s looked at my clerical collar and said, ‘So you’re a nun, then?'”

I was not prepared for the elderly woman who told me in a matter-of-fact, almost chipper voice that she was ready to die and prayed every night that she wouldn’t have to wake up and do this all again tomorrow.

I was not prepared for the battering loneliness– the daily barrage of never quite being a part of anything, because I consented, by pursuing ordination, to be set apart.

I find myself envious, many times, of those worker bees whose jobs are quantifiable, tangible, visible.  I envy my friend Claire who creates the bulletins for all our worship services– every week she knows what her tasks are and ever week there is something that she created that she can hold in her hands and be proud of. I was not prepared to feel so positively unmoored by not receiving constant feedback, syllabi, tasks, and results.

I was not prepared to enjoy the spotlight as much as I do. I have struggled mightily to recover any semblance of humility I may have once had– no one told me how hard that would be.

I was not prepared for the disappointment I felt when a baby was too sick to be baptized to be more disappointment that was not getting to do a baptism than disappointment that the baby was ill.  In short, here, I wasn’t prepared to have to fight so strongly against being a total, self-absorbed, emotional, envious, discontented jerk.

I was prepared for what I would be doing, but I wasn’t prepared for the emotional,  psychological, relational, and physical effects of the HOW of doing it.

***

I wonder if my unmoored, bewildered, emotional feeling is kin at all to Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane.  His prayers were so earnest, so devastatingly honest and terrible. He said to those whom He called friends, “I am deeply grieved, even to death.” He went back and forth, up and down– not this, Father. Your will, Father. Please no, Father.  Yes, Father.

He Qi, "Praying at Gethsemane."Source: http://thejesusquestion.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/jesus_gethsemane-qi.jpg (Go to this blog for an assortment of Gethsemane renderings... quite beautiful!)

He Qi, “Praying at Gethsemane”
Source: The Jesus Question (Go to this blog for an assortment of Gethsemane renderings… quite beautiful!)

Answering the call, as I’ve said before, is the easy part.  Then you actually have to go and wander in the desert, or be nailed to a cross, or sit in an office and wonder if you’re doing this “adult” thing, or this “ministry” thing, or this “life” thing right at all.

***

So here’s what’s working for me to survive, even (hopefully) to flourish in all this.  If you’re feeling at all like I am, new clergy out there, or if you seminarians are feeling terrified by my honest account, follow these simple rules and you’ll be alright:

1. Read. Not just Scripture, although read a lot of that. Read memoirs, read blogs, read biographies and books of ancient letters.  These types of texts will allow you to inhabit the mind and soul of another person, which gives you perspective, and companionship, and camaraderie, and empathy.
My suggestions: Follow the hours or the daily office to get your fill of Scripture. Books: Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God and Still, all three of Anne Lamott’s books of musings on life and faith, Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church (not her best work at all, but an honest and perspective-giving account of the pitfalls that haunt clergy) and above all else Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain.

2. Listen to music. New music. Old music. Listen to it in the office even if you have to put headphones on. Listen to the stuff you listened to in high school. Listen to the stuff the current high schoolers are listening to. Listen to Mumford and Sons, Bob Dylan, Esperanza Spalding, and Sinatra. Music lights the soul in a way nothing else can.

3. Limit your consumption of garbage.

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Source: United Methodist Memes

By this I mean junk: junk food, junk television, junk internet content, junk movies, junk phone calls with junk, gossipy friends.  Toss it out as much as you can.  I think it’s pretty true that you are what you eat, or watch, or say. So try to eat, watch, and say true and good things. (This, I’m still not good at. I just love pizza. And twitter. And the dang Sister Wives.)

***

So, at the end of 6 months, I’m coming around to the realization that being totally and completely uprooted, unmoored, and bewildered is not the worst thing in the world.  It’s not even the end of the world.  It’s an invitation to engage with a deeper kind of reality, the kind where Merton is more soul-soothing than a good Duck Dynasty marathon.

It’s an invitation to live.

***

Source: United Methodist Memes

Source: United Methodist Memes

On Being a Loser

(Amazon.com)

A very wonderful colleague and friend named Claire here at my church in Charlotte recently lent me Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Leaving Church.  It is a must-read, new clergy.  I can say without a doubt that it is absolutely brilliant, and I’m only on page 8.

It’s like reading a printout of those thoughts that pool at the base of your brain, those thoughts that you can never quite congeal in a digestible way but that you know are there…. Thoughts about your expectations for ministry, thoughts about your ability level and performance, thoughts about your capabilities, desires, and energy reserves.

Forgive me, new clergy, for outing you, but we are mostly a mix of anxiety, bewilderment, giddy excitement, and utter blankness.

This blankness is what concerns me the most.  The anxiety, bewilderment, and excitement make sense to me– we are in a foreign land.  Oh it’s a beautiful land, don’t hear me wrong; there is milk and honey aplenty.  But it’s foreign nonetheless.  I don’t believe the Israelites knew instantly how to cultivate the promised land, how to settle it in a prudent fashion, or how to establish their manner of living right off the bat.

But the blankness is something I’ve been struggling to find a Biblical basis for.

What do I mean by blankness?
I think I mean this wide-eyed, furrow-browed sense of wandering through the days that I share with some of my fellow new clergy.

We have a deep, abiding desire to be graded as we were in seminary, but this is not going to happen (and if it does, the most vocal graders will be those who are trying to fail you!).
So we are left holding empty internal report cards, unable to fit our performance into a category we can understand.

We have a deeper, abiding desire to succeed and do very, very well– not for our sake, but for the sake of God, the Church, our parishioners.  But there is always more to do, there is always something left undone– a longer visit with the widow in the hospital, a few more hours preparing that presentation to make it flow more smoothly, another phone call, email, or meeting with so very many people.
And we’re left with un-crossed-off to-do lists and the deep, resounding fear booming through our chests that there were about three dozen things we never even thought to put on the to-do list in the first place.

We have a yet even deeper, abiding desire to be in deep, meaningful communion with God, with friends, with discipleship partners.  But it is often very hard to find the time or the people to make these things happen, so we are left lulling ourselves to sleep with a quick prayer and the little voice rationalizing that “You need to sleep, God and your friends understand; maybe it’s even a form of worship, the fact that you’re taking care of God’s creation by letting your body sleep.”
And we wake up with deep chasms of guilt and great holes in our soul that leave us wondering if they can ever be repaired.

How can we fill God’s people when we’re not sure we can even fill ourselves?
How can we enrich God’s people when our own hearts and minds feel so funnily fuzzy and blank?

***

Barbara Brown Taylor reflects on Matthew 10:39 in which Jesus utters that enigma that haunts both the living and the blank: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for My sake will find it.”

Barbara writes,

In Greek the word is psyche, meaning not only ‘life’ but also the conscious self, the personality, the soul. You do not have to die in order to discover the truth of this teaching, in other words. You only need to lose track of who you are, or who you thought you were supposed to be, so that you end up lying flat on the dirt floor basement of your heart. Do this, Jesus says, and you will live. (Leaving Church, xiii)

This, I think, is what the blankness is.  It’s lying flat on the dirt floor basement of your heart… not lying prostrate, because who has that kind of intentionality or energy?  Lying flat because you are exhausted, because your mind is blank, because you have no idea where to go next or how to get there, or even how to stand.

I and many of my new clergy friends spend much time belittling ourselves for the blankness that we feel.  We moan to one another in the most desperate of ways, “Why don’t I have the energy to read the Bible anymore?” “I just never know if I’m doing anything right,” and “I feel like a failure,” “Maybe I misheard my calling,” “Can this really be my life?”

What Barbara and Jesus seem to be saying is that this is all part of the process.  “Finding life, losing life, and finding life again.”

Jesus rejoices, in the Gospels, over those who lose their lives for His sake.  He says that this kind of loss of life is what leads to real life.

The dark night of the soul, the dirt from the basement floor shuffling up your nostrils and the inability to raise your head to see the angel of the Lord passing by… it’s not a bad thing.  It’s not wrong.  It in no way means that your calling has been revoked, or that you are not doing this thing called ministry right, or that God has turned, eyes rolling, away from you.

It means that you are right where you were meant to be.  Because Jesus is on the basement floor just as presently as He’s on the mountaintops, perhaps even more so.  Because she who loses herself for His sake will find herself in Him.  She who wanders blankly will find the holes filled– not patched, but filled- by His Spirit.  She who loses track of who she is, or who she thought she was supposed to be, Jesus says, will live.

Amen!